Friday, January 11, 2013

I'm Sick, I'm Tired, and I'm Done

I am a hockey fan.  This probably is not news to you.  I’ve been one for more years than I care to admit.  It is why I watch the games, why I write this blog.  When I arrived in Washington in January 1984 from Michigan, the first order of business after getting the keys to my apartment and getting the utilities turned on was to get hockey tickets.  The Washington Capitals became my team.

Being a Caps fan would mean a lot of things over the years starting back then – Patrick Division rivalries; watching “The Plumbers” become the personality of a hard-working, lunch pail kind of team; a four-overtime gut punch in a Stanley Cup Game 7; an overtime winner in a Game 7; the annual disappointments of losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins; cheering on Rod Langway, Dale Hunter, and Mike Gartner; cheering on Lou Franceschetti, Steve Konowalchuk, and Kelly Miller.  Peter Bondra and Alex Ovechkin.  Bryan Murray and Bruce Boudreau.  I’ve seen about 350 players come through Washington in the years I have been following the Caps.  For 29 years almost to the day the Washington Capitals have been the team I rooted for above all others in DC, and in time, in all sports.

Early last Sunday morning the NHL and its players association came to terms – finally – on a framework for a new labor agreement.  Players are returning to NHL rinks from Russia, Sweden, the AHL, or from wherever they are working out to prepare for a late-starting season.  Fans will be returning to those rinks to cheer their favorites in hopes of seeing them raise the Stanley Cup.

One fan won’t be back, though.

After 29 years, after giving the matter far more thought than it deserved, and even though I am thrilled that the best players in the world will once more take the ice, I realize that being one of “the world’s greatest fans” merely means I can be taken for granted, played for a sucker, and given no respect by those who depend on fans like me for the health of their game.

My days as a season ticket holder are over.

I am sick of NHL ownership holding a season hostage merely because it can.  This is the third time I’ve seen a lockout in the NHL.  In 1994 the issue was small market revenue and who should pay for propping it up – players, by tying salaries to revenue, or teams, through revenue sharing.  In 2004, the argument was that the player compensation system was broken, crippling the ability of small market teams to compete.  This year, we were right back where we started.  You did not need a map and a flashlight to understand that the problem was not, as the Commissioner opined, that “we believe that we are paying the players more than we should be.”

It was that the league put hockey in cities that quite frankly cannot support it or that have turned their backs on it.  This was not the players’ problem.  It was the league’s problem and that of its ownership.  This lockout was on them and on them alone.  But in a callous effort to have others – players, for the most part – pay for the sins of NHL and club management, folks whose livelihoods depend on hockey suffered.  Fans who really are the greatest fans in the world did not suffer in the same way, perhaps, but their disappointment was deeply felt.  Perhaps that disappointment will manifest itself this time in fans turning away from the sport, or at least the NHL brand of it.  Sad it might be, but it will be what those who are the stewards of the game deserve.

I am tired of NHL ownership’s arrogance as expressed by their hired mouthpiece.  Gary Bettman commenting that “we have the greatest fans in the world” is merely boilerplate hot air, a throwaway line that speaks volumes about what the league thinks.  It drips with contempt for those fans, suggesting that there is no level of abuse they will endure that will push them away from the rink.  Three work stoppages under this Commissioner in 18 years?  Hah!  They’ll come back. 

There is the misleading tease.  Before the last lockout, the Commissioner said, “with the right economic system, we can take the pressure off of ticket prices, and I believe with the right economic system, many, if not most of our teams, will actually lower ticket prices. I believe we owe it to our fans to have affordable ticket prices.” 

Ownership got the economic system they wanted in 2005, down to every dotted “i” and crossed “t.”  Did ticket prices go down?  According to Team Marketing Report the average ticket price for the Washington Capitals went up 7.4 percent in 2009, 24.2 percent in 2010, and 12.3 percent in 2011.  Another hefty price increase was in store for the 2012-2013 season.  This time around, the league doesn’t even go through the pretense that ticket prices will be made “affordable” after yet another lockout.  This time, it seems, the fans are owed nothing.

I am tired of being treated like an idiot.  There are owners who will say, “our season-ticket pricing has been moderate when compared with others around the league…we estimate that our average ticket price will be in the middle of the pack. More importantly to you, however, our season-ticket pricing will be in the lower half of the league.”  More important to me?  More important to me are the double-digit percent price increases that have become normal.  It is not as if I can be a cost-conscious consumer and say, “well, maybe I’ll just buy a season ticket package for one of those teams with lower prices.”  The market choice I have here is purchasing a Washington Capitals season ticket or none.  So stop with the silly arguments about having lower prices than the Toronto Maple Leafs or the New York Rangers.  They aren’t relevant.

In the end, it was all so pointless.  The lockout became a bubble in which the two sides argued over what would become comparatively small sums of money, given the revenue the game generates, without a concern in the world for those outside the bubble who actually pay the freight – the fans – and those who depend on hockey for their livelihoods – small businesses, vendors, arena staff, and more.  It became a death match in which the sides, but the league far more than the players, were more willing until the last possible moment to blow up a season than entertain the thought or perception that they could “lose” to the other side.  No one – I repeat, no one – was thinking of “the good of the game” in this pathetic affair.

Once upon a time, I wrote a long essay about my relationship to NHLhockey and the Washington Capitals in particular.  The passion for hockey is still there, but not so much for the NHL.  The National Hockey League has cultivated a subtle idea in the minds of hockey fans.  The league would like you to believe that there is equivalence between being a “real” hockey fan and purchasing their product to watch in person and their merchandise to wear at those games.  If you’re not attending NHL games or buying NHL team jerseys, you are some lesser specie of fan.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  One can be a rabid fan without ever buying a ticket, purchasing a jersey, or contributing one thin dime to any of the league’s affiliated enterprises.

I am a fan of hockey.  I will continue to be a fan of hockey.  But I am not a fan of the NHL as a corporate enterprise.  I root for the Washington Capitals.  I will continue to do so and to write in this space about them.  But I do not root for Monumental Sports and Entertainment.  Hockey fans should acknowledge the difference between competitive hockey played on a rink and corporate hockey played at a conference table.  You can watch games and cheer in the company of friends at a local bar (whose owner – perhaps one hurt very much by this lockout – probably respects your patronage much more than does the NHL); you can do so with your fellow fans at each others' homes.  Or, if you just want to root in solitude, you can do so in a comfortable chair where the beer is colder and the food is cheaper.  You can still be a rabid fan of the sport without lining the pockets of the league or its clubs while being abused or insulted every half dozen years or so for the privilege.

Fellow hockey fans, it is time to face an inconvenient truth about your position in the world of NHL hockey.  You are a wallet with feet, a credit card number, nothing more.  Neither the league nor its clubs have any consideration for you outside of that.  Ignore that at your peril or at your profound disappointment.  The next time a league official says you are “the greatest fans on earth,” know it for what it is, a throwaway piece of rhetoric.  The next time a club owner says he values, appreciates, or cherishes you, it is prelude to his trying to pry more money out of your wallet.  And as for bottom lines, there is but one bottom line here, the owners’.

Because in the end, sports is a business.  That is not just a turn of phrase, it is a reality.  Sports has always been thus, but it has more often than not been accompanied by at least the notion that a sports franchise was a community enterprise, that one was a steward of that enterprise as well as an owner.  These days, that has changed.  A sports franchise is merely an asset to be managed by people whose interest doesn’t seem to stray far from, well, asset management.  The NHL has reduced itself in this process to an elemental expression of that fact.  In that respect – and perhaps in that respect alone – they are like one of the major professional sports.

OK, fine.  It’s a business.  As a member of that business the Washington Capitals are asking me to buy a product.  It is a product that has provided a lot of thrills over the years and its share of disappointments, too; misfortunes that I have set aside to return to the stands because I do have a passion for hockey.  The current state of the product the Capitals want to sell me has evidenced little improvement over the past several years and has shown itself to be unreliable in its availability.  Yet it is one for which I am being asked to pay higher and higher…and higher prices, year after year…after year.  If it was just that, though, I’d be back.  The pull of hockey has been, and remains, that strong. 

Let me repeat that…the pull of hockey has been, and remains, that strong.  After all, I had already decided last spring to renew for this season, despite the too-frequent on-ice disappointments with my team and even the sticker shock in ticket price increases from year to year.  But in the midst of this lockout, I found myself realizing that I just don’t want to do business with these people anymore.  Arrogance, unreliability, and an utter lack of sensitivity or appreciation to those who pay the bills do not make for a trusted business partner.

You, dear reader, might think this rant is one-sided, that there is blame to be shared by the players and their Players Association.  I am not happy with some of their tactics, but in the end, one party was responsible for a lockout, and it has become the default position of the league upon the expiration of collective bargaining agreements.  In the assignment of blame for the state of NHL hockey and this lockout, the scales tip heavily on the ownership side of the scale.

I have no delusions that the rant of one unhappy hockey fan is going to create a groundswell of opposition to what the NHL is doing.  It will not register not at all in Washington.  After all, the Caps are selling out the joint, and there is a “waiting list” for tickets.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  Because the Caps might be the “in” thing in DC for now, but a lot of those fans that jumped on board when they started winning won’t miss a beat in jumping off when they stop or when they are overtaken by other local teams, such as the up-and-coming Nationals or a Redskins team that has an electrifying rookie in Robert Griffin III.

In the end, I can't even be angry, just sad.  Sad in the knowledge that in almost 29 years as a fan attending games when I could, then as a partial plan holder, and then as a season ticket holder, I was there when the Caps were the lunch-pail team working hard and busting tail, despite the playoff disappointments.  I was there when the Caps were frustrated year after year, first by the Islanders, then by the Penguins.  I was there when the Caps tried to do the right thing and trade for a superstar in Jaromir Jagr, then when they traded Jagr away to start to rebuild their team.  I was there going into and coming out of The Great Lockout of 2004-2005, when the Caps tried hard but weren't very good.  I was there when the Caps couldn't draw flies. I was there when they made themselves competitive again.  I was not alone.  A lot of season ticket holders, fierce in their loyalty, could tell a similar story here in Washington and in a lot of other cities around the league.

But now, I find that for a few dollars, or pride, or just being unable to stomach the very idea of "losing" to the help in a labor dispute, the league could not return that loyalty for their legions of season ticket holders and fans.  The league seemed intent to follow a script in which they would get around to a settlement, secure in the knowledge that whatever the delay, fans would be back.  Well, when the NHL locked out its players, it locked out its fans, too.  The difference between one and the other is that the players will be back.  And even though I suppose most fans will be back, I won’t be, not as a season ticket holder.  One might argue that I’m turning my back on the NHL, but the fact is the league turned its back on me and thousands of other fans when it decided to go down this road one more time.

I’m sick, I’m tired, and I’m done.

F.J. Corrigan